Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Joshua May's Reply

I have received a reply to my previous post from Joshua May, the author of Regard for Reason in the Moral Mind.  I post it here in its entirety:

Thank you for sharing this with me and for engaging with the book. From what I can tell, you describe my views accurately and charitably, which I greatly appreciate. 

I think you rightly draw out that since my view isn't an extreme caricatured rationalism, my defense of the independence of reason does ultimately depend quite a bit on my anti-Humeanism. But I agree with you that the empirical research is unfortunately not very useful for settling that debate. In that part of the book, I'm largely just on defense, arguing that we don't have any empirical reason to accept Humeanism. But I certainly don't want to claim that only anti-Humeanism is empirically defensible. (Sinhababu in particular does an admirable job.)

It's interesting that you bring up Darwall's Roberta case, because I had written about it but decided to cut it from the book. Partly that's because I don't know how helpful it is to focus on a single hypothetical case. What's going on with Roberta? Well, it's Darwall's fictional case; it's kind of up to him! Of course, if he describes Roberta as having no relevant antecedent desire, then Humeans will say that's either conceptually or empirically impossible. Anti-Humeans will say otherwise. The debate doesn't advance much.

The alternative tack I take is to think more about cases of that sort and empirical research on how moral beliefs motivate generally. Here Chapter 7 is key. There I argue that we have overwhelming empirical evidence that people's moral (more broadly, normative) beliefs play a pervasive role in motivating behavior. Now, Humeans will then have to posit an antecedent desire, but not just any one. They have to posit one in such cases that links up with the moral beliefs. If the moral belief plays a motivational role, then it looks like they have to attribute an antecedent desire to be moral. I don't think that's a terrible result, but it's one they often want to avoid. 

At any rate, as I say, I'm ultimately more on the defensive when it comes to my anti-Humeanism. I'm happy if I can resist the apparent consensus that only Humeanism is empirically defensible.

Saturday, August 25, 2018

The Humean Regard for Reason in the Moral Mind: Comments on Joshua May

One of the most interesting developments in the intellectual world over the past 30 years has been the cooperation of scientists and philosophers in applying empirical scientific research to philosophical questions.  I have often argued that empirical science can clarify and perhaps even resolve some of the great debates in moral and political philosophy.  In particular, I have contended that empirical research in Darwinian moral psychology proves that Humean empiricist sentimentalism is right, and Kantian transcendentalist rationalism is wrong. Some of my pertinent posts can be found herehereherehereherehereherehere, and here.

Joshua May's new book Regard for Reason in the Moral Mind (Oxford University Press) argues, on the contrary, that the scientific research in moral psychology that I cite actually does not sustain Hume's sentimentalist ethics, because it supports an anti-Humean rationalism in moral philosophy.  Hume is famous for declaring: "Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them" (Treatise of Human Nature,  May claims, however, that there is nothing in the empirical science of moral psychology that refutes the anti-Humean position "that normative beliefs can causally produce a normal, non-pathological action without merely serving or furthering an antecedent desire. On this picture, we can be motivated to act ultimately by recognizing that it's the right thing to do.  Reason is not a slave to such passions" (179).

I agree with May in rejecting pure sentimentalism (like that promoted by Jesse Prinz), because this ignores the fact that while our emotions or desires motivate our actions, those emotions or desires are prompted and directed by our rational judgment, and thus emotion alone cannot explain our moral actions.

I also agree with May in rejecting pure rationalism (like that of Immanuel Kant), because while reason influences our conduct, pure reason alone cannot move us to act without the motivational impetus of emotion or desire.  Although May does not emphasize or elaborate the point, he clearly rejects the Kantian position that "we can arrive at moral judgments by pure reason alone, absent any sentiments or feelings" (5, 19, 97, 186-87).

What we need, then, is a theory that accounts for the experimental research on moral judgment that shows a complex interaction of reason and emotion.  The best statement of such a theory is Hume's rationalist sentimentalism.  As I indicated in my previous post on Jonathan Haidt, Hume is often mistakenly identified as an irrationalist emotivist.  When Hume declared that "reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions," he was not denying the power of reason in moral judgment.  As the context of this remark makes clear, he believed that reason can direct action but not motivate it: "The impulse arises not from reason, but is only directed by it" (1888, 414).  When our passions are accompanied by false judgments, reason can properly correct them: "The moment we perceive the falsehood of any supposition, or the insufficiency of any means, our passions yield to our reason" (1888, 416).  "Reason and judgment may, indeed, be the mediate cause of an action, by prompting, or by directing a passion" (1888, 462).  Consequently, "reason and sentiment concur in almost all moral determinations and conclusions" (1902, 172).  For example, reason might instruct us as to how justice could be useful to society, but this alone would not produce any moral approbation for justice unless we felt a sentiment of concern for the happiness of society (1902, 285-87).

Consider, for example, the research by Joshua Greene (2013) and others who have used functional MRI to scan the brains of people as they make decisions about the Trolley Dilemma.  In the Switch Case, most people are willing to pull the switch to save five lives while taking one life.  But in the Footbridge Case, most people are unwilling to push the fat man onto the tracks to save five lives.  In judging the Switch Case, the more calculating parts of the brain are activated (including the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex), while in judging the Footbridge Case, the more emotional areas of the brain are active (including the ventromedial prefrontal cortex).  

Like many of the thought experiments favored by contemporary philosophers, this Trolley Dilemma is a cartoon story that doesn't seem realistic.  But we could also think about some real cases in history--particularly the history of war--that would present essentially the same dilemma, which comes up in the debates over "just war" reasoning.  As I have indicated in a previous post (here), Winston Churchill and the British war leaders faced a real Trolley Dilemma in responding to Germany's flying bomb attacks on London in the summer of 1944.  The British philosopher who first proposed the Trolley Dilemma--Philippa Foot--lived through these attacks.

Here's Jesse Prinz's interpretation of how people judge the Trolley Dilemma:

"In all these moral dilemmas, there are too options: you can save five people (that's good!), or you can do something that results in one person dying (that's bad!).  When you think about doing something good, you may have a positive emotional response; it feels good to help people.  When you think about doing something bad, your response is negative.  These two emotional forces battle it out in the brain and the stronger one wins." (2012, 297)
Prinz is silent, however, about the point made by Greene and his colleagues that there is no absolute separation between reason and emotion in the brain.  For example, the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and the ventromedial prefrontal cortex are interconnected, and this confirms Hume insight about the interconnectedness of reason and emotion in moral judgment.

Prinz is also silent about the point made by John Mikhail that the emotional responses to the Trolley Dilemma show an intuitive grasp of the rational principle of double effect, which often figures prominently in just war reasoning.  Mikhail generalizes this principle to cover homicide and battery:  "the principle holds that an otherwise prohibited action, such as battery or homicide, which has both good and bad effects may be permissible if the prohibited act itself is not directly intended, the good but not the bad effects are directly intended, the good effects outweigh the bad effects, and no morally preferable alternative is available" (2011, 149).

Most people think pushing the fat man is wrong because their emotional response against this embodies a rational principle by which a directly intended killing of an innocent person is wrong, while an indirect and unintended killing of an innocent person might be justifiable if it achieves a good effect that outweighs the bad effect.

Emotions are judgments about the world, and thus our emotions are shaped by rational judgments.  So, for instance, in the Switch Case, if we discovered that there was some other way to divert the trolley without killing the one innocent person, we would condemn throwing the switch.

Sometimes it is said that when we see the influence of intuitive emotional reactions in the Trolley Dilemma, this debunks our moral judgments in such cases because it shows that our judgments are biased by irrational emotions.  Utilitarians like Greene and Peter Singer say that the abstract utilitarian principle of killing one person to save five is the same in both the Switch case and the Footbridge case, and so the emotional resistance to pushing the man off the footbridge is morally irrelevant. 

But May rightly observes that this is mistaken, because "integral emotions can alert us to morally relevant factors, so it's not problematic in general to base one's belief on them" (99).  Our emotional aversion to pushing the man off the footbridge to stop the trolley from killing the five people is alerting us to "something like greater agential involvement in the generation of a bad outcome."  As opposed to the Switch case, we are here "harming another actively, purposefully, and in a personal way," which is surely a morally relevant factor (100-101).

But if May sees here the necessary combination of reason and emotion or beliefs and desires in explaining moral action, which is necessary because pure thought by itself cannot motivate us to act without emotion or desire, then it seems that May is actually agreeing with the Humeans in embracing a rationalist sentimentalism.  

May nonetheless insists that while he agrees with the Humeans about the need for combining reason and desire, he disagrees about which comes first: the Humean thinks that reason leads to moral action only when it is guided by an antecedent desire, while the anti-Humean thinks that moral reasoning that is not guided by any antecedent desire can produce a desire that motivates the execution of the moral judgment reached by reason alone.  Unlike the Kantian anti-Humean who thinks that moral reason produces moral action without any need for intrinsic desire, May's anti-Humean thinks that moral reason produces the intrinsic desire that then produces the moral action dictated by reason, and thus reason is the ruler of desire, not the slave.  Thus, May can say that "reason is not a slave to unreasoned desire," because moral reason creates its own reasoned desire to motivate moral action (188).

How exactly does this happen?  May explains: "The process involves ordinary causation: an intrinsic desire is causally generated by a normative belief and the relevant disposition," because "it's partly constitutive of being a rational, virtuous, or strong-willed person that one possesses the disposition to desire in accordance with one's normative beliefs." Notice that May has added a reference to "disposition."  He concedes that "Humeans must say something quite similar.  The only difference is that, instead of a disposition, Humeans posit a full-blown desire," because they believe that "actions are generated by intrinsic desires combined with beliefs about how to satisfy them" (190-91).

The Humeans might complain that May's "disposition" is just another word for desire, so we might as well say that reason is the slave of the dispositions!

May writes
". . . the best anti-Humean theory merely posits a disposition for normative beliefs to generate the corresponding desires.  While a strong-willed person, for example, may lack the antecedent desire to throw her pack of cigarettes away, she may simply have a disposition to do so if she believes it's best to trash them."
"Humeans may be tempted to count such dispositions as desires and declare victory.  However, while we're working with a rather broad conception of desire, we shouldn't broaden it to any mere disposition of a person to do something.  A desire is a goal-directed, conative, motivation-encompassing state with some content, so it's a state whose function is to bring about what's desired.  But desire is not the sole proprietor of dispositions relevant to action.  To adapt an example from Darwall . . ., even if I'm disposed to eat a piece of pie upon seeing one, this disposition alone need not constitute a desire for some pie.  A mere disposition can graduate to a full-fledged desire only if it has the requisite function and content . . . . Of course, Humeans would explain the eating of some pie in terms of an antecedent desire to eat delicious food when it's available.  However, the pie example is not meant to refute Humeanism but rather to show that being disposed toward some action (e.g., eating pie) doesn't entail antecedently desiring it in particular" (189).
Here May's distinction between disposition and desire seems to be a distinction between a general desire (such as a desire for delicious food) and a particular desire (such as a desire for this piece of pie before me that I judge to be delicious food), where the transition from one to the other requires a rational judgment.  This looks like what Aristotle identified as the "practical syllogism" in The Movement of Animals:  the major premise is a desire for something, the minor premise is a judgment that some action will satisfy that desire, and the conclusion is the execution of the action.  So if I desire healthy food, and if I judge that this piece of pie before me is healthy food, then I will eat it.  May's argument seems to be that my desire to eat this piece of pie is not antecedent to my judgment that this is a good piece of pie.  Rather, my rational judgment that this piece of pie is healthy food appeals to my general disposition to eat healthy food in a way that produces the desire to eat this piece of pie.  But, still, the Humean will say that my rational judgment here is serving my general disposition, which might as well be called a desire.

Since May admits that reason must be combined with a motivating disposition to create a new desire, which then motivates action, it's hard to see that this really differs from the Humean claim that all action requires the combination of reason and an antecedent desire.  May even admits the weakness of his argument:
"Now, I don't pretend to have conclusively ruled out Humeanism as a hypothesis about the structure of motivation.  I only aim to show that moral beliefs play an important role in human action and that we lack empirical reason to always posit antecedent desires that they serve or further.  Perhaps our best theory will require always positing such antecedent desires.  As we saw in the previous chapter, construing moral integrity as involving such antecedent desires isn't always incompatible with virtue anyway" (198).
It's not clear to me how any neuroscientific experiments could resolve this dispute between May's "sophisticated anti-Humeanism" and the Humeans.  The scientific research can refute both pure emotivism and pure rationalism by showing that neither emotion alone nor reason alone can explain our moral psychology, because, as May says, "both reasoning and emotion together play important roles in moral psychology."  But it's hard for scientific research to decide whether reason is prior to emotion or emotion is prior to reason, because once one recognizes the cognitive aspects of emotions as resting on judgments about the world, the line between emotion and reason becomes fuzzy.  May says that "the reason/emotion dichotomy, intuitive as it may be, is either spurious or fruitless" (228).  A Humean like Haidt says the same thing in speaking of the "useless dichotomy between cognition and emotion."  "Emotions are not dumb. . . . Emotions are a kind of information processing" (Haidt 2012, 44-48).  I first saw this in my early studies of Aristotle's Rhetoric, teaches rhetoricians to "reason with the passions" of their audience.

Any experimental testing to resolve this dispute between May and the Humeans would require some agreement on possible scenarios that could be studied.  The anti-Humean Stephen Darwall has offered one good example of what he interprets as an illustration of how moral judgment creates a new desire to execute the judgment without any need for an antecedent desire.  The Humean Neil Sinhababu (2009) accepts this as a good example for study, but he points to evidence that there really is an antecedent desire in the story.  Although May accepts Darwall's argument and rejects Sinhababu's argument, May does not speak about this story.

Here's the story:
"Roberta grows up comfortably in a small town.  The newspapers she reads, what she sees on television, what she learns in school, and what she hears in conversation with family and friends present her with a congenial view of the world and her place in it.  She is aware in a vague way that there is poverty and suffering somewhere, but sees no relation between it and her own life.  On going to a university she sees a film that vividly presents the plight of textile workers in the southern United States: the high incidence of brown lung, low wages, and long history of employers undermining attempts of workers to organize a union, both violently and through other extralegal means.  Roberta is shocked and dismayed by the suffering she sees.  After the film there is a discussion of what the students might do to help alleviate the situation.  It is suggested that they might actively work in promoting a boycott of the goods of one company that has been particularly flagrant in its illegal attempts to destroy the union.  She decides to donate a few hours a week to distributing leaflets at local stores." (Darwall 1983, 39; Sinhababu 2009, 483-84)
According to Darwall, this shows that Roberta's decision to support the boycott arose from her moral judgment that the workers were suffering from unjust exploitation, which created the desire that these workers not suffer, and this new desire then motivated her to act in accordance with her moral reasoning.  Contrary to what the Humeans would say, there was no antecedent desire guiding her moral reasoning, but instead her moral reasoning created a new desire to motivate her moral action: her passions were the slave of her reason.

But why, Sinhababu asks, is Roberta "shocked and dismayed by the suffering she sees"?  Aren't those emotions of shock and dismay evidence of an antecedent desire that human beings should not suffer unfairly?  This general desire that people not suffer could then be turned into the particular desire that the workers in the South should be relieved from their suffering once she understood the film's  presentation of the information about their suffering.  So here her moral desires guided her moral reasonng to moral action.  Her desire that humans not suffer was latent in her mind until it was activated by the judgment that people were suffering in the South.

What would be May's alternative explanation?  Would he say that Roberta had an antecedent disposition that human beings not suffer, but this was not an antecedent desire?  Or would he say that Roberta's moral reasoning about the suffering of the Southern workers created a disposition that humans not suffer that could then produce a desire that these Southern workers should not suffer?

Could this be experimentally tested?  We could test some subjects for the desire that people not suffer.  We could then show them the film about the Southern workers.  We could then see if the desire to relieve the suffering of the Southern workers arises in those subjects who had no antecedent desire that people not suffer.  Of course, we might expect that almost everyone would have some general desire that people not suffer.

If we were to scan their brains during the test, I am not sure that we could distinguish reason and desire clearly enough to resolve the debate between May and Sinhababu.


Darwall, Stephen. 1983. Impartial Reason. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Greene, Joshua. 2013. Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap Between Us and Them.  New York: Penguin Press.

Haidt, Jonathan. 2012. The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. New York: Pantheon.

Hume, David. 1888. A Treatise of Human Nature. Ed. L. A. Selby-Bigge. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Hume, David. 1902. Enquiries Concerning the Human Understanding and Concerning the Principles of Morals. 2nd ed. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

May, Joshua. 2018. Regard for Reason in the Moral Mind. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Mikhail, John. 2011. Elements of Moral Cognition: Rawls' Linguistic Analogy and the Cognitive Science of Moral and Legal Judgment. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Prinz, Jesse. 2012. Beyond Human Nature: How Culture and Experience Shape the Human Mind. New York: Norton.

Sinhababu, Neil. 2009. "The Humean Theory of Motivation Reformulated and Defended." Philosophical Review 118:465-500.

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Were Julie and Mark Wrong to Engage in Incest? Reconsidering Jonathan Haidt's Evolutionary Moral Psychology


I have written a long series of posts on Jonathan Haidt's evolutionary moral psychology.  One of them can be found here, which includes links to some of the others.  My series of posts on the Darwinian psychology of the incest taboo (here has included some thoughts about how Haidt uses the disgust aroused in most people by incest to illustrate the priority of emotion over reason in our moral judgments.

I have generally agreed with Haidt, but recently I have become skeptical about his use of his widely discussed scenario of Julie and Mark as a sister and brother who engage in incest.  He presents this as a "harmless-taboo story" that elicits disgust and thus moral condemnation in the minds of most people, even though they cannot give any good reasons for why this is wrong, which apparently shows how moral judgment arises from irrational emotions rather than good reasoning.  When people are asked to give reasons to justify their disgust, they grope for reasons that they cannot defend when challenged.  They are, Haidt says, morally dumbfounded--they are sure that incest is wrong but without being able to support this moral judgment with good reasons.

I no longer find this persuasive.  And I see some evidence that Haidt himself has changed his mind about this, because his "moral foundations theory" seems to recognize moral disgust as possibly being a good reason for moral condemnation, and also because he seems to have moved away from a purely emotivist theory to a more rationalist theory that sees no sharp dichotomy between reason and emotion in moral judgment.  Earlier, Haidt embraced what he interpreted as David Hume's emotivist theory of morality; but now he seems to be moving towards accepting a better interpretation of Hume as seeing moral judgment as arising from both emotion and reason.  In this way, he is moving towards Charles Darwin's understanding of human moral evolution.

Here's Haidt's story:
"Julie and Mark, who are sister and brother, are traveling together in France.  They are both on summer vacation from college.  One night they are staying alone in a cabin near the beach.  They decide that it would be interesting and fun if they tried making love.  At the very least it would be a new experience for each of them.  Julie is already taking birth control pills, but Mark uses a condom too, just to be safe.  They both enjoy it, but they decide not to do it again.  They keep that night as a special secret between them, which makes them feel even closer to each other.  So what do you think about this?  Was it wrong for them to have sex?" (Haidt 2012, 38)
Originally, Haidt and his collaborators presented this story to 30 undergraduate students at the University of Virginia.  24 of the students said that Julie and Mark were wrong to do this.  They were then asked why was this wrong.  They struggled to give a reason, and when they did, the interviewer would challenge what they said.  Haidt reports:
"Most people who hear the above story immediately say that it was wrong for the siblings to make love, and they then begin searching for reasons.  They point out the dangers of inbreeding, only to remember that Julie and Mark used two forms of birth control.  They argue that Julie and Mark will be hurt, perhaps emotionally, even though the story makes it clear that no harm befell them.  Eventually, many people say something like, 'I don't know, I can't explain it, I just know it's wrong'" (Haidt 2001, 814).
Notice what Haidt did here.  First, he implicitly assumed that the best rational principle of moral judgment is "no harm."  Then, he carefully wrote the scenario about Julie and Mark to exclude the possibility of harm from their incest--either the harm of inbreeding for their offspring or the emotional harm to their relationship as siblings.  He could then tell the students that this harmless conduct could not be morally condemned and that condemning this conduct as disgusting is irrational because disgust is not a rational principle of moral judgment.

Some of Haidt's critics have challenged him on all these points (Jacobson 2012; May 2018; Royzman et al. 2015).  Weren't the students who condemned Julie and Mark correct in thinking that sibling incest is likely to be harmful?  Even if they could avoid pregnancy and the harm of inbreeding, isn't it implausible that they could avoid emotional harm to themselves.  In his scenario, Haidt says that Julie and Mark thought making love would be "interesting and fun," and that they could keep it as a "special secret between them" that would make them "feel even closer to each other."  But isn't that unrealistic?  And isn't it likely that most of the students found Haidt's scenario unbelievable?

In fact, when Royzman and his colleagues conducted their own experiment in asking students to respond to Haidt's story of Julie and Mark, the students were allowed to express their disbelief in the claim that Julie and Mark could engage in incest without harm.  Most of the students could not believe that sex between siblings could occur without some emotional harm to the siblings.  In Haidt's experiment, he refused to accept this by forcing the students to agree with the stipulated claim in his scenario that Julie and Mark were not emotionally harmed by their incest.

Some of the 39 comments on my first post on incest (October 7, 2006) are pertinent to this question of how harmful sibling incest might be.  The 6th comment is by someone who says that "my younger sister and I played together sexually from an early age, and persisted well into adulthood," and he describes this as "an outlet for our strong sexual drives around the onset of puberty."  But I wonder whether this "sexual play" stopped short of full sexual intercourse.  And even if some siblings can do this at an early age, at the onset of puberty, with little permanent harm, isn't this likely to be risky behavior?

The risk is indicated in the 9th comment, where a man writes about his incest with his younger sister:
"While our relationship was consensual, non-abusive and non-exploitive, it also exacted a heavy price. Not 15 minutes after making love for the first time, she and I were both overcome with intense feelings of guilt and shame. No one ever taught us to feel this way, we simply did. These feelings did not go away either, but persisted for years afterwards, creating problems in our relationship that have never been fully resolved. For a long time I considered what we did back then to be the worst thing I'd ever done. Even so that did not stop us. The ability of the human libido to suppress one's moral judgment is truly amazing. What finally ended our sexual relationship was my leaving home to go to college. When she joined me a year later we'd been separated long enough to break the cycle I guess. We've never done anything since then."
What explains those "intense feelings of guilt and shame" that arose automatically without their ever having been taught to feel that way?  Edward Westermarck elaborated Darwin's suggestion that if inbreeding between closely related kin increases the risk of deleterious physical and mental traits in offspring, then natural selection might have favored a natural disposition to acquire a aversion for sexual mating with those with whom one has been reared from an early age, which might then be expressed culturally as an incest taboo, so that the idea of incest arouses a sense of disgust.  This disgust would be strongest for sex within the nuclear family--sex between parents and children and between siblings--and weaker for more distantly related kin.  This "Westermarck effect" would arise even for sex between unrelated people who have been reared together from an early age.  One famous example of this is that people who had been reared together as children in the Israeli kibbutzim did not marry one another as adults, because they felt like siblings.

If this is true, then the moral condemnation of incest will be both emotional and rational: there will be an emotional expression of disgust with incest that depends on a rational judgment of what constitutes incest.  Consider, for example, how Haidt's students might have responded to a scenario in which Julie and Mark were cousins who fell in love.  Many of the students might have felt no disgust if they thought that sex between cousins need not be considered incest.  Or if they were told that Julie and Mark were stepsiblings who had been reared in different families, this also might have led some of them to conclude that this was not incest.  Or what if they were told that Mark's wife had died, and Julie was his sister-in-law?  Here our moral emotion of disgust depends on our cognitive judgment of what counts as incest.

This illustrates how we reason with our emotions: we argue ourselves into and out of our moral emotions by judging whether those emotions are a justified response to the circumstances.  Not many years ago, most people might have felt a disgust with interracial marriage and homosexual marriage comparable to their disgust with incest.  But now this reaction has been weakened by the judgment that there is no harm in such marriages.  Legislators and judges must debate these questions in deciding what kinds of marriage are permitted.

Although originally Haidt interpreted the moral disgust with incest as illustrating the purely emotive character of moral judgment, in which reason does nothing but fabricate rationalizations for what has been dictated by moral emotion, he has seemed to move in recent years towards recognizing the interaction of reason and emotion in moral judgment.  He speaks of the "useless dichotomy between cognition and emotion," and he says that "emotions are not dumb," because "emotions are a kind of information processing," and therefore emotion and reasoning are two forms of cognition (2012, 44-48).

Here is his "social intuitionist model":
Haidt explains: "Intuitions come first and reasoning is usually produced after a judgment is made, in order to influence other people.  But as a discussion progresses, the reasons given by other people sometimes change our intuitions and judgments" (2012, 47).  But if other people can give us reasons that change our intuitions and judgments, why can't we give ourselves reasons that shape our intuitions and judgments?  Haidt does allow for this in links 5 and 6, but these links are dotted lines to indicate that they are rarely used links.  He observes: 
"One of the most common criticisms of the social intuitionist model from philosophers [like Joshua Greene] is that links 5 and 6, which I show as dotted lines, might in fact be much more frequent in daily life than I assert. . . . Of course people change their minds on moral issues, but I suspect that in most cases the cause of change was a new intuitively compelling experience (link 1), such as seeing a sonogram of a fetus, or an intuitively compelling argument made by another person (link 3).  I also suspect that philosophers are able to override their initial intuitions more easily than can ordinary folk" (2012, 329).
Notice, however, that Haidt does not explain the unnumbered arrow from "Eliciting Situation" to "A's Intuition." Surely, a situation cannot "elicit" my intuition unless I cognitively interpret that situation, which requires some kind of reasoning, even if the reasoning is quick, unconscious, and implicit rather than consciously deliberate.  So when Haidt's students read his scenario about Julie and Mark, the students had to engage in some reasoning to decide whether the claim that their incestuous liaison could be harmless was realistic or not.  Most of them decided that this was not realistic, and as a consequence of this rational judgment, their interpretation of this "Eliciting Situation" produced an intuitive emotion of disgust.

This is Hume's position.  When Hume famously declares that "reason is, and ought to be the slave of the passions" (1888, 415), Haidt and others assume that he is promoting emotivist irrationalism or sentimentalism.  But as the context of this remark makes clear, Hume believes that reason can direct action but not motivate it: "The impulse arises not from reason, but is only directed by it" (1888, 414).  When our passions are accompanied by false judgments, reason can properly correct them.  So, for example, reason might correct our false judgments that interracial marriage or the marriage of cousins is harmful and thus allay our moral disgust.  As Hume says, "The moment we perceive the falsehood of any supposition, or the insufficiency of any means our passions yield to our reason" (1888, 416).  "Reason and judgment may, indeed, be the mediate cause of an action, by prompting, or by directing a passion" (1888, 462).

Consequently, Hume contends, "reason and sentiment concur in almost all moral determinations and conclusions" (1902, 172).  For example, reason might instruct us as to how justice could be useful for society, but this alone would not produce any moral approbation for justice unless we felt a sentiment of concern for the happiness of society (1902, 285-87).

Our concern for social happiness might promote the principle of no harm as one foundation for morality, which would apply to our moral judgments about incest.  And if Haidt is right, the principle of not harming others is only one of at least six moral foundations--the other five being "liberty/oppression," "fairness/cheating," "loyalty/betrayal," "authority/subversion," and "sanctity/degradation."  All six of these principles can be explained as intuitive or instinctive propensities of human nature as shaped by Darwinian evolution, and thus as moral universals across all of human history and across all human cultures.  But the different rankings of those six principles constitute differing moral matrices.  So Haidt has found that the moral matrix for American liberals ranks care for the victims of oppression as higher than the other principles, while American social conservatives elevate the principles of loyalty, authority, and sanctity, and American libertarians rank liberty as the highest principle.

Each of these six principles is a good reason for a moral judgment expressed through a moral emotion.  And thus the debates between liberals, conservatives, and libertarians will be both rational and emotional as they argue over the proper ranking of those principles as applied to particular moral issues such as the legal regulation of sex, marriage, and family life.

Haidt has claimed that his research shows that "social conservatives have the broadest set of moral concerns, valuing all six foundations relatively equally" (2012, 306), which has provoked criticism from some liberal social psychologists.  Haidt has criticized his colleagues in social psychology for having a bias against conservatives and libertarians in their field, In some of my posts, I have argued that Haidt's research actually supports a Darwinian conservatism that combines classical liberalism and traditionalist conservatism.


Haidt, Jonathan. 2001.  "The Emotional Dog and Its Rational Tail: A Social Intuitionist Approach to Moral Judgment." Psychological Review 108:814-34.

Haidt, Jonathan. 2012. The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. New York: Pantheon Books.

Hume, David. 1888. A Treatise of Human Nature. Ed. L. A. Selby-Bigge. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Hume, David. 1902. Enquiries Concerning the Human Understanding and Concerning the Principles of Morals. 2nd ed. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Jacobson, Daniel. 2012. "Moral Dumbfounding and Moral Stupefaction." In Oxford Studies in Normative Ethics, ed. Mark Timmons, 289-315. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

May, Joshua. 2018. Regard for Reason in the Moral Mind. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Royzman, Edward B., Kwanwoo Kim, and Robert F. Leeman. 2015. "The Curious Tale of Julie and Mark: Unraveling the Moral Dumbfounding Effect." Judgment and Decision Making 10:296-313.

Friday, August 10, 2018

War and the Lockean State of Nature in Aboriginal Australia

During my recent travels in Australia (Brisbane and Sydney) and New Zealand (Wellington and Auckland), I thought about how those countries have been two natural laboratories of human evolution.

New Zealand was the last major land mass to be settled by human beings.  There were no human beings in New Zealand prior to about 1300 AD, when the Polynesian ancestors of the Maori people navigated their way to those islands.  The Maoris were preliterate people living in tribal chiefdoms without a state.  The first brief European contact occurred in 1642 when two Dutch ships under the command of Abel Tasman sailed to Golden Bay at the top of the South Island.  After a skirmish with some local Maori attacking in their canoes, Tasman sailed away without landing and never returned.  In 1769, James Cook, on the first of his three voyages around the world, became the first European to land on New Zealand and establish contact with the Maoris, who lived as independent tribes, often at war with one another, although they were also bound together by trading networks. Beginning with Cook, the British and Maori established a barter trade.  I will return to this evolutionary history of New Zealand in a future post.

In contrast to the recent human settlement of New Zealand, the first human settlers of Australia arrived over 50,000 years ago, probably crossing a land bridge with what is now New Guinea.  Until James Cook's mapping of Australia's east coast in 1770 and the first British establishment of a penal settlement in Sydney in 1788, Australia was an isolated continent of Aboriginal hunter-gatherers--with no agriculturalists, pastoralists, or states.  When the Europeans arrived, they found a continent of over 300 tribes of hunter-gatherers.  This was a perfect laboratory for the study of human evolution as hunter-gatherers, which constituted over 90% of human evolutionary history, and which can be identified as our evolutionary state of nature.  To resolve the debate among political philosophers--such as Hobbes, Locke, Spinoza, and Rousseau--over the state of nature, the study of Aboriginal Australia should be crucial.

Since human beings in the state of nature--like the Aboriginals of Australia and the Maoris of New Zealand--have been preliterate people, they have left no written records of their history.  Anthropologists from literate societies have tried to write the history of these "prehistoric" people through the ethnographic field research study of hunter-gatherer societies that have survived into recent centuries.  But this creates the "contact paradox"--to study hunter-gatherers we must contact them, but this contact changes them from what they were before contact.  By the time anthropologists write their ethnographic reports, the hunter-gatherers have been influenced by their contact with agriculturalists and state societies.

The study of Aboriginal Australia minimizes this contact problem, because the purely hunting-gathering way of life of the Aboriginals was isolated from the rest of the world for over 50,000 years, and consequently whatever the Europeans saw in Australia during their first contact can be considered perhaps the best picture of our evolutionary state of nature.  Hobbes and Locke thought the European reports about the American Indians might be the best account of the state of nature--"In the beginning, all the world was America," as Locke said.  But the European discovery of Australia might be even better--In the beginning, all the world was Australia.

Azar Gat has made that argument in claiming that the evidence for warfare in Aboriginal Australia refutes the assertion of Rousseauian anthropologists that the state of nature was perfectly peaceful and that war was a late cultural invention coming only after the adoption of agriculture and the state.  Some of the best evidence for Aboriginal warfare in Australia comes from William Buckley (1780-1856).  Buckley was brought to Australia in 1803 as a convict on a convict ship that established a settlement at Port Philip (now Melbourne).  He escaped shortly afterwards, and for 32 years he lived with an Aboriginal tribe--the Wallarranga.  He learned their language, married one of their women, and joined in all of their activities.  In 1835, he returned to the white settler community.  For a few years, he worked as an interpreter and mediator for the English in dealing with the Aboriginals.  He then moved to Hobart, Tasmania, where he lived for the rest of his life.  He told his life story to John Morgan, a Tasmanian newspaper editor, who wrote The Life and Adventures of William Buckley, published in 1852.  Although some people have questioned the accuracy of his stories, some anthropologists who have studied the Australian Aboriginals have said that his account of life with the Wallarranga seems quite accurate.

Buckley describes many lethal feuds, raids, and ambushes among the Aboriginal tribes.  The most common cause of the conflicts was disputes over women and retaliatory vengeance.  He describes their weapons of war--clubs, spears, boomerangs, and shields.  Remarkably, there were no bows in Aboriginal Australia.  He also relates his observations of cannibalism.

Buckley reports that a typical tribe was composed of 20 to 60 families.  Some people--such as skilled hunters and warriors--had high social status, and leading men could have more wives.  But "they acknowledge no particular Chief as being superior to the rest" (86), which distinguishes them as pure hunter-gatherers unlike the chiefdoms of the Maori.

Here's one example of Buckley's reporting of warfare.  He describes his tribe meeting about 300 members of the hostile Waarengbadawa tribe:
"A general fight now commenced, . . . spears and boomerangs flying in all directions.  The sight was very terrific, and their yells and shouts of defiance very horrible.  At length one of our tribe had a spear sent right through his body, and he fell.  On this, our fellows raised a war cry; on hearing which, the women threw off their rugs, and each armed with a short club, flew to the assistance of their husbands and brothers. . . . Even with this augmentation, our tribe fought to great disadvantage, the enemy being all men, and much more numerous."
". . . I had seen skirmishing and fighting in Holland; and knew something therefore, of what is done when men are knocking one another about with powder and shot, in real earnest, but the scene now before me was much more frightful--both parties looking like so many devils turned loose from Tartarus.  Men and women were fighting furiously, and indiscriminately, covered with blook; two of the latter were killed in this affair, which lasted without intermission for two hours; the Waarengbadawas then retreated a short distance, apparently to recover themselves. . . ."
". . . Soon after dark the hostile tribe left the neighborhood; and, on discovering this retreat from the battle ground, ours determined on following them immediately, leaving the women and myself where we were.  On approaching the enemy's quarters, they laid themselves down in ambush until all was quiet, and finding most of them asleep, laying about in groups, our party rushed upon them, killing three on the spot, and wounding several others.  The enemy fled precipitately, leaving their war implements in the hands of their assailants and their wounded to be beaten to death by boomerangs, three loud shouts closing the victors' triumph."
"The bodies of the dead they mutilated in a shocking manner, cutting the arms and legs off, with flints, shells, and tomahawks."
"When the women saw them returning, they also raised great shouts, dancing about in savage ecstasy.  The bodies were thrown upon the ground, and beaten about with sticks--in fact, they all seemed to be perfectly mad with excitement; the men cut the flesh off the bones, and stones were heated for baking it; after which, they greased their children with it, all over.  The bones were broken to pieces with tomahawks, and given to the dogs, or put on the boughs of trees for the birds of prey hovering over the horrid scene" (60-61).
Some people have questioned the reliability of Buckley's reports, but many other historical accounts of Aboriginal warfare written by other European observers in the first few decades after contact confirm Buckley's stories.  There is also extensive skeletal evidence of violence among the Aboriginals across Australia studied by archaeologists (Allen 2014; Pardoe 2014).  This evidence includes cranial depression fractures and parrying fractures in the bones above the wrist that show the damage from face-to-face combat or from raising the arm in defense against attacks by a club or other weapon.

In response to this evidence for lethal violence among the Aboriginal Australians, some Rousseauian anthropologists like Douglas Fry have argued while this shows that hunter-gatherers engaged in homicide, this is purely personal violence that is not really war.  Gat identifies these anthropologists as "Quasi-Rousseauians," because they have given up on Rousseau's claim that hunter-gatherers were perfectly peaceful.  But even this modified Rousseauism fails, because much of the violence that Buckley describes includes battles between tribes that clearly qualifies as warfare, because he relates battles involving hundreds of people.  Of course, if one defines war in such a narrow way, as Fry does, so that raiding, ambush, and feuding are not defined as war, then forager conflict is not war.  But if one defines war as lethal conflict between independent societies, as Steven LeBlanc (2014) does, then the Australian Aborigines certainly engaged in war.  As Buckley indicated in the passage above, he had fought as a British soldier in the Napoleonic wars, and he compared his experience in a European war with the warfare he saw in Australia.

Thus, as Gat concludes, the evidence of Aboriginal Australia seems to show that Hobbes was right about the state of nature being a state of war, and therefore Rousseau was wrong.  But the evidence also shows that Hobbes was wrong in claiming that life in the state of nature was a perpetual war with no peaceful cooperation.  In fact, Buckley and others have reported that the Aboriginal Australians lived in communities with norms of peaceful cooperation that included intertribal cooperation such as networks of trade.  And they sometimes had long periods without intertribal war.

Like many of the social scientists involved in this debate over the evolution of war, Gat assumes that the debate is between two alternatives, represented by Hobbes and Rousseau, and he ignores Locke as taking a third position.  Consequently, he fails to see that the evidence supports the conclusion that Hobbes was partly right about the state of nature, Rousseau was mostly wrong, and Locke was mostly right.  Locke was right to see that the state of nature is a state of peace that easily becomes a state of war: establishing government can therefore have a pacifying effect through the rule of law to settle disputes that easily become violent feuds in the state of nature.

In his new book The Causes of War and The Spread of Peace, Gat comes close to recognizing that the evidence from Aboriginal Australia sustains Locke's account of the state of nature.  Gat says that Locke's "more balanced depiction of pre-state as compared to state societies was suggestive" (39).  Oddly, however, Gat says that "Locke, like Hobbes and Rousseau, was not a researcher of the past but a political philosopher defending a particular political creed.  His interest was the present."  Gat does not notice that Locke, like Hobbes and Rousseau, studied the earliest ethnographic reports about hunter-gatherers as evidence for the state of nature.

Some of my earlier posts on Gat can be found here and here.

The same ethnographic and archaeological evidence of hunter-gatherer warfare in Aboriginal Australia has been found around the world--including Europe, North America, South America, and New Guinea (Allen and Jones 2014).  This supports the conclusion that hunter-gatherers both simple and complex have engaged in socially sanctioned lethal conflict between independent societies, and that this long evolutionary history of warfare can be traced back to early hominins.  This shows that human beings have an innate propensity to warfare shared with chimpanzees (Wrangham and Peterson 1996; Wrangham and Glowacki 2012), although human beings can also choose not to act on that innate propensity, particularly when their lives have been shaped by a Lockean liberal culture that favors declining violence.

Posts on the "chimpanzee model" for the evolution of war can be found herehere, and here.


Allen, Mark W., and Terry L. Jones, eds. 2014. Violence and Warfare Among Hunter-Gatherers. London: Routledge.

Allen, Mark W. 2014. "Hunter-Gatherer Violence and Warfare in Australia." In Violence and Warfare, eds. Allen and Jones, 97-111.

Gat, Azar. 2017. The Causes of War and The Spread of Peace: But Will War Rebound? Oxford: Oxford University Press.

LeBlanc, Steven. 2014. "Forager Warfare and Our Evolutionary Past." In Violence and Warfare, eds. Allen and Jones, 26-46.

Morgan, John. 2002 (orig. 1852). The Life and Adventures of William Buckley. Ed. Tim Flannery. Melbourne, Australia: The Text Publishing Company.

Pardoe, Colin. 2014. "Conflict and Territoriality in Aboriginal Australia: Evidence from Biology and Ethnography." In Violence and Warfare, eds. Allen and Jones, 112-132.

Wrangham, Richard, and Dale Peterson. 1996. Demonic Males: Apes and the Origins of Human Violence. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Wrangham, Richard, and Luke Glowacki. 2012. "Intergroup Aggression in Chimpanzees and War in Nomadic Hunter-Gatherers: Evaluating the Chimpanzee Model." Human Nature 23:5-29.

Wednesday, August 01, 2018

The Weapons of the Weak against the Strong: How the Americans Won the War of Independence by Not Losing

In my IPSA paper, as I have on this blog, I have argued that the naturally evolved human tendency to resist domination  and demand government by consent of the governed shows how might makes right.  The obvious objection to this claim is that this is ridiculous in denying the evidence of history that the rule of the stronger over the weaker means government by force of the rulers rather than government by consent of the ruled.

My response to this objection is to point out how the American war of independence demonstrates that the weaker can prevail against the domination of the stronger when the weaker use the weapons of defensive resistance to defeat the stronger

The British military was so invincible that the Americans could never win militarily. But for the British to prevail, they had to win; while for the Americans to prevail, they only had to avoid losing.  Once the Americans learned this lesson in 1776, they saw that a resolute defensive resistance could deprive the British of a military victory.  And in this way, the weaker would prevail over the stronger.  (In my thinking here, I have been much influenced by Joseph Ellis's Revolutionary Summer: The Birth of American Independence [2013].)

In the fall of 1775, George III proclaimed the Americans to be in rebellion and so no longer under his protection.  He announced the assembly of a massive force that would crush the Americans in one blow.  In addition to British regulars, he ordered the recruitment of 10,000 mercenaries from either Russia or the German principalities where professional soldiers were trained in the tradition of Frederick the Great.

On February 13, 1776, John Adams was a member of the Continental Congress, who was arguing for American independence from Great Britain; and he wrote to John Trumbull:  "By Intelligence hourly arriving from abroad, we are more and more confirmed that a Kind of  Confederation will be formed among the Crowned Skulls, and Numbskulls of Europe, against Human Nature."

On March 4, Adams wrote in his diary:
"Injustice, wrong, injury excites the feeling of resentment, as naturally and necessarily as frost and ice excite the feeling of cold, as fire excites heat, and as both excite pain.  A man may have the faculty of concealing his resentment, or suppressing it, but he must and ought to feel it. Nay he ought to indulge it, to cultivate it.  It is a duty. His person, his property, his liberty, his reputation are not safe without it.  He ought, for his own security and honor, and for the public good, to punish those who injure him. . . . It is the same with communities.  They ought to resent and to punish."
In arguing for a war of independence, therefore, Adams assumed that all the military might of Great Britain could not defeat the human nature of the American resentment of domination and desire to punish those who injured them.  By the summer of 1776, the Continental Congress agreed to this in signing the Declaration of Independence.

This was a remarkable claim given the forces assembled by the British. At great cost, the British had recruited over 18,000 mercenaries from German principalities.  The British sent 427 ships (almost half the British fleet) with 1,200 cannons with 32,000 soldiers and 10,000 sailors--an attack force larger than the entire population of Philadelphia, which was the biggest city in America.

Their objective was to defeat the Continental Army in New York City, and take total control of New York so as to cut off New England from the rest of the colonies, and thus so demoralize the Americas that they would surrender and the rebellion would end.

Since Manhattan is surrounded by water, the British ships could easily surround and bombard George Washington's troops.  Although some Americans recognized that New York was indefensible, Washington thought that the Continental Army would be dishonored by retreat.  But as his casualties mounted, he realized that he had made a big blunder.  He did finally manage to lead his troops in a retreat from Manhattan, because General Richard Howe, the British commander, delayed in closing off Washington's retreat.

Many of Washington's troops deserted, and those who remained were undisciplined and inexperienced.  American political leaders would not support the establishment of a professional standing army, which they regarded as a violation of the Republican principles of liberty that were better represented by citizen militias.  Washington recognized, however, that unprofessional militia soldiers could never defeat the professional military forces of the British.

The British could have destroyed the Continental Army on Manhattan.  But once it escaped, the British never had another chance to do this, because Washington saw that he needed to fight a defensive war, never allowing the British to meet the Continental Army head on.

As the chair of the Board of War and Ordinance, John Adams acted as the secretary of war.  From his study of Thucydides's history of the Peloponnesian War, Adams decided that the Americans needed  to adopt the defensive strategy of Thebes--seeing that they could not defeat the Spartan army, the Thebans avoided any open battles with Sparta, and instead relied on harassing skirmishes.  The Americans could do the same, which would prolong the war until the British saw that they could never win as long as the Americans refused to surrender while also refusing to allow the British to destroy their army in open battle.  It also helped the Americans when the French intervened on their side in 1778.

The British signed the Treaty of Peace in 1783.  After suffering 40,000 casualties and spending 50 million pounds, the British had failed to win the war, because the Americans had managed not to lose.  There is a remarkable similarity to the failure of the United States to win the Vietnam War, although the U.S. military force was far stronger than the insurgent forces.

This outcome seemed to vindicate the British opponents of the war in America--Edmund Burke, Charles Fox, and William Pitt--who said that the war was unnecessary and unwinnable because of the resoluteness of the Americans in fighting for their liberty, and therefore the war should have been avoided by giving the Americans what they wanted--the right to consent to their own governments--so that sovereignty would be divided between the colonial legislatures and Parliament.

Some British historians have blamed Richard Howe for the blunder of not destroying the Continental Army in Manhattan when he had the chance to do so.  But other historians have argued that even if the Continental Army had been demolished in 1776, and Washington had been either killed or captured, the Americans could have continued the war with a new army, and the outcome would have been the same.

There is no way to answer this historical "what if" question.  It all depends on the resoluteness of the American commitment--"our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor"--to a war of independence among the Continental Congress and ordinary Americans.  In the spring of 1779, Richard Howe had called for a special inquiry in the House of Commons on the conduct of the war so that Howe could defend himself against his critics.  Those defending Howe claimed that British forces could never defeat the Americans because the Americans were almost unanimous in their hostility to British rule.  Howe's opponents, however, claimed that only one fourth to one third of the Americans were committed rebels, and that many were loyalists.  Today, some historians estimate that the Loyalists were about 20 per cent of the populace.

In any case, it is clear that the success of the American rebellion did not require anything close to unanimity in support of independence.  There were many Loyalists.  Many Americans welcomed the British and even joined their army.  But there were enough Americans showing the evolved natural resistance to dominance in their hostility to British rule to deny victory to the otherwise invincible British military.

"Human Nature" prevailed against "the Crowned Skulls and Numbskulls of Europe."

This illustrates Friedrich Nietzsche's point about how the power of the weak to inflict damage on the strong creates a kind of equalization of power that supports the idea of equal rights--and thus that Spinoza was right about natural right being proportional to power.   This is the Darwinian liberalism of Nietzsche in his middle writings, who explained Darwinian natural right as rooted in animal morality. I wrote about this in a previous post (here).